Courage Is a Series of Small Steps
Lark tells me her dream
Posted Jan 27, 2018
As I step across the threshold into Lark’s apartment, I’m afraid of what I will see. I’m pretty sure “clutter” is an understatement, and I’m wondering if it will be floor-to-ceiling layers of stuff most of us would have put out for recycling or trash pick-up. I expect a narrow path among piles of things, and I expect to find it oppressive.
It is oppressive, and there is a narrow path, but it’s mostly things I have in my apartment too: books, art supplies, clothes, mail and magazines. There are numerous bags full of gift-wrapped packages, a butternut squash and a few apples, and stacks of greeting cards. It’s a mish-mash, and there’s much too much stuff, but it’s not garbage, not junk and, mercifully, not fetid. It’s the way my living room would look if all the things in my apartment were put into that room. Things are piled against the walls, behind the couch and chair, around the television table, up to the window sills, four or five feet into the room on every side. The path in front of the couch runs over to the chair and forward to the window sill.
Lark is watching me, and I keep my face neutral. “Are you all right?” she asks. I look at her. She is standing on the verge of the living room, in an equally-lined hall that must go toward the rest of the small apartment: a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, I assume. “Yes, I’m fine,” I say with a smile. She looks doubtful. “Really?” I turn to face her, meet her eye and hold her gaze. “Yes, Lark, really. It’s actually not as oppressive as I thought it might be.” This, apparently, is the right tone to take with her: gently honest, and lightly humorous. She laughs. “Whew! I was afraid you might turn tail and fly out of here.”
She comes into the living room, squeezing by me. She stands near the chair, and gestures at the couch, which does not have items on it, only surrounding it. It is covered with an Indian cotton spread, under which I spy a vinyl tablecloth. Lark is watching me intently. “I have to put a tablecloth on top of the couch to prevent Kit-Kat’s vomit from staining the couch, but I didn’t want you to have to sit on a tablecloth so I covered it with the spread. Will you be okay sitting on that?” “Of course,” I say as I sit. “Thank you. Will Kat-Kat show himself, or will he hide while a stranger is here?” “It depends. It is time for his elevenses, so he will probably come out to demand food.” A wraith of a marmalade cat appears as if on cue. “See! There he is!” And she suddenly shifts into very high-pitched baby talk: “Do you want your snacky-snack? Or did you come to be introduced to Elizabeth?” She gets up and passes in front of me and heads down the short hall. “I’ll just get his food, and be back in a minute.”
I spend the minute looking around. Surrounding the chair, where she clearly sits, are two filing cabinets overflowing with papers, office supplies, the tv remote, magazines, greeting cards, a stack of books, two folded vinyl cloths, a pair of shoes, and a box of colored pencils. On the wall beside her chair she has stuck post-it notes: “Elizabeth 11:00 Friday” and “OATMEAL!” There are also two pictures from wildlife magazines, one of a tropical sunset, the other a rainforest at dawn. There are various quotations to live by: “Change is not only possible, it’s already occurring!” and “Breathe!” and “Courage is a series of small steps.”
Although crowded and disorganized, the room is cheerful in a certain way: Lark has surrounded herself with symbols of optimism, and all the items strike me as happy things, items that will in their way allow Lark to express herself, grow, and engage with the world. I’m surprised to realize that I am glad to be here, in this room full of hoarded happiness.
When she comes back into the room after feeding Kit-Kat, she sits in her chair and looks around. “I had a dream last night,” she starts. “It’s a recurring dream. In it, I’m making progress, slowly getting things organized in here, and in the bedroom. I can see the whole floor in here, and I can get out of bed without having to move things to get to the door.” I make a note to myself: Follow up on fire hazard. She continues: “Just when I am about to finish, and my home is the way I want it to be, pretty and organized and presentable, I discover a door I didn’t know was there.” I’m listening attentively; she’s a good storyteller, and the dream seems rich in meaning to her. “I open the door and—” She stops.
As I watch, not wanting to rush her, her eyes fill and she turns away to look out the window. Then she turns and faces me. “It’s the secret room.” I wait. I wait what seems like a long time. Tears are rushing out of her eyes, and she gets up to find a Kleenex, eventually locating a box of them under her coat over by the door. She blows her nose, walks into the kitchen to throw the tissue away, and by the time she comes back she is completely out of the dream, sunny and cheery again.
I want to give her a chance to go a little farther. “The secret room?” I ask gently. She turns her head away. “Another time,” she says. “Maybe I can tell you another time.” I nod.
We discuss ways out of the apartment in case of fire: a quick way out the window from the bed, the need to make a space through the kitchen to the window there. I say casually, assuming the answer is no, “Do you ever light candles or matches?” “No,” she says. “If Kit-Kay has a particularly stinky time in the litter box, I wave a lighter around.” “A lit lighter?” I sound sharper than I intend, and she looks up, surprised. “Yes. Should I not?” “You should not,” I say very firmly. “You mustn’t have any open flame in here. There’s too much stuff that could catch fire very quickly. It’s really dangerous.” “Oh,” she says, and I realize that she actually didn’t know that. “Okay, I won’t do that anymore. It’ll stink, but maybe I can get some spray.” “Yes,” I say, “that would be better.”
A few minutes later, when I leave, I wonder if the apartment would pass a fire inspection. I wonder if I need to report it. I wonder if I’m getting in over my head with Lark. “'Breathe!'” I remind myself. “'Change is already occurring.'"